The Getty Research Institute (GRI) in Los Angeles has acquired the private collection of Lee Kaplan, a local bookseller who amassed a significant archive of eclectic published material and ephemera on Black artists.
“Running the gamut from out-of-print catalogues published by long-defunct galleries to recent zines by Los Angeles artists, this significant acquisition presents a unique opportunity for the Library to collect deeply and broadly on Black visual culture from a rich variety of disparate sources,” said Simone Fujita, the Getty’s first bibliographer of African American Art.
Kaplan and his wife, Whitney, opened Arcana: Books on the Arts in a one-bedroom apartment on Westwood Boulevard in 1984. Aided by his skills as a book dealer, he sourced materials from his extensive network of museums and galleries, curators and artists, art collectors and other dealers, and academics. Slowly, it grew into one of the city’s leading resources of the visual culture of African American and Black Diaspora artists, which was then still sidelined by most institutional libraries.
According to the Getty, Kaplan’s collection numbers some 3,5000 objects, including exhibition posters, pamphlets, monographs, and Black-led art publications, among other ephemera, dating from the 1930s to today.
“We have put artists and photographers in touch with publishers and gallerists that have impacted their careers, books in the hands of designers that have informed their output, etc.,” Kaplan said in a 2020 interview. “The cultural butterfly effect of this radiating out into the greater world cannot be understated, and it may be what I am proudest of as far as Arcana goes.”
Kaplan’s collection is the latest in a series of significant acquisitions as part of the Getty’s African American Art History Initiative. Since 2018, the institution has added to its holdings the personal archives of artist Betye Saar and the library of the late Robert Farris Thompson, a leading scholar of art and music of the Black Atlantic.
In 2019, the Getty Trust, which manages the GRI, banded together with the Ford Foundation and the Mellon Foundation to buy the historic archives of Johnson Publishing, the Chicago-based company that owned Ebony and Jet magazines, for $30 million as part of a week-long auction. The archive, which contained more than 4 million images documenting 20th-century African American culture, was donated to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Getty Research Institute so that it could be publicly accessible.
“I’m so excited to have the Whitney and Lee Kaplan African American Visual Culture Collection at the GRI—for so many reasons, but principally because I can imagine the generations of new scholarship that this collection will underpin,” GRI director Mary Miller said in a statement. “This collection of the past will be the engine of the future.”